“I don’t think the town of Waynesville is ready to go there,” Mayor Gavin Brown said at a town meeting last week.
Three other aldermen — LeRoy Roberson, Wells Greely and Julia Freeman — agreed that blow-up gorillas and those flapping, nylon figures piped with air were just too tacky.
Roberson said businesses will always be engaged in a game of one-upmanship when it comes to signage, and the town has to draw the line somewhere.
“People say ‘I am not getting the effect I want to so let’s see how gaudy I can make mine,’ and it is a domino effect. Everyone has to make their sign more attention-getting,” Roberson said in an interview before the meeting.
At a public hearing on the proposed sign changes earlier in the month, a local car dealer offered a qualified endorsement of blow-up gorillas to advertise sales and special deals.
“This big gorilla stuff, if you really want my opinion, my personal opinion, I don’t like them … but people that work with me believe that it helps,” said Fred Waring, director of business development at Waynesville Automotive.
Alderman Gary Caldwell was the only town alderman in favor of blow-up inflatable characters. Caldwell said the town should follow the lead of the ad-hoc committee of business owners and planning board members that spent months rewriting the sign ordinance and ultimately recommended that inflatable characters be allowed.
“This would be a slap to the face for them,” Caldwell said.
“Ninety-eight percent of it we are going to accept, so I don’t think 2 percent is a slap in the face,” Brown replied.
“We have moved yards ahead so I feel good,” Freeman added, citing the other changes the town is going to allow.
Other changes that did get the blessing of town leaders are folding sandwich boards on downtown sidewalks, and bouquets of balloons and plastic banners strung from stakes or the sides of buildings — both of which weren’t allowed before. Changes will also allow more signs papering store windows and an increase in the allowable sign size in some areas of town.
Waynesville’s stricter sign rules dated to the early 2000s. They were aimed at preserving the community’s small-town charm and mountain character.
It won’t be the first so-called compromise in the name of bigger, brighter, flashier signs. This marks the fourth time in 10 years that the town has loosened its sign rules.
The issue that prompted the most discussion at the sign public hearing, and later among aldermen, is whether businesses just off the main drag should be allowed to put their signs along the more trafficked thoroughfares to pull customers their way.
Businesses a block or two off Main Street or down a side street from primary commercial boulevards lobbied for permission to put their signs along the main arteries.
“We have a business that is located in kind of an obscure location,” said Kevin Sandefur, owner of BearWaters Brewing, which is on a side street off Russ Avenue. “That is a constant frustration for us.”
Maleah Pusz, the owner Bosu’s Wine Shop on a side street in downtown Waynesville, echoed that complaint.
“It is very difficult to get people to kind of see Waynesville as being a contiguous whole beyond just that Main Street corridor,” Pusz said.
If customers don’t know where a business is, it can be the kiss of death. Richard Miller, owner of The Classic Wine Seller on Church Street, is just around the corner from Main Street, but getting shoppers to turn that corner is hard if they don’t know something is down there.
Miller suggested allowing businesses within a block of Main Street to have way-finding signs. Pusz agreed, sort of.
“I agree completely with Mr. Miller, except perhaps two blocks down from Main Street would be preferable,” said Pusz, whose business is two blocks off Main.
The town planning board, however, advised against businesses being allowed to put signs up along the nearest main drag.
“Everyone wants a sign on Main Street,” town planner Paul Benson said. “I think it is a very scary ordinance to consider adopting. I think we are getting into very dangerous ground.”
Benson likened it to a Pandora’s Box.
Business owners angling for sign visibility would have to find a property owner on the main drag willing to house their sign. That could create an underground industry of property owners along Main Street selling space for what essentially amounts to mini-billboards.
Town aldermen were torn over the issue.
“A bevy of signs going up on Russ Avenue and everybody selling little spaces to put a sign — that’s the concern I heard from the planning board, and that’s not the direction we want to go,” Brown said.
But likewise, aldermen said they didn’t want businesses off Main Street to fail or be unsuccessful due to a lack of visibility.
“They have got to be able to get the word out,” Roberson said.
Brown questioned whether there was a way to accommodate signage for out-of-the-way businesses without the unwanted side effects.
“The issue is the proliferation,” Brown said in an interview before the meeting. “If we can limit the number and size then it is not objectionable.”
An alternative favored by town leaders is a master “wayfinding” sign at key intersections to alert passersby that more businesses are nearby.
These signs could be erected by the town, not individual businesses, thus the town could ensure an attractive and uniform appearance in keeping with the town’s character, said Town Manager Marcy Onieal.
“It would not have to advertise specific businesses. You could have generic messages like ‘shopping, restaurants, brewery,’” Onieal said.
“In particular a brewery,” Freeman agreed.
Indeed, the town leaders saw value in alerting people to unique destinations, like Sandefur’s BearWaters Brewery.
“The concept is trying to work with businesses to have a better economic arena,” Brown said.